Exhibitions/ Art Object

Pope Gregory XVI Visiting the Church of San Benedetto at Subiaco

Jean-François Montessuy (French, Lyons 1804–1876 Lyons)
Oil on canvas
49 1/4 x 55 3/8 in. (125.1 x 140.7 cm)
Credit Line:
The Whitney Collection, Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003

Accession Number:
Not on view
The magnificently frescoed monastery of San Benedetto, about thirty miles east of Rome at Subiaco, was built during the Middle Ages as a pilgrimage site. The presence of the reigning pontiff during a visit of 1834 imparts the gravity of contemporary history to this picturesque costume piece. He is shown emerging from the Sacro Speco, the cave venerated as the one in which Saint Benedict lived as a hermit about A.D. 500. Montessuy sought to establish his reputation with this, his first such masterwork, at the Paris Salon of 1844. There is no more complete expression of the penchant among Lyonnais artists for surface description than this painting.
Montessuy was a student of Pierre Révoil, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Louis Hersent, in succession, but a slow convalescence from wounds suffered during the Revolution of 1830 temporarily sidelined his painterly ambitions. He finally struck out for Rome in April 1836, eventually discovering the hill town of Subiaco. What began in the 1780s as a slow trickle of French painters drawn there for its picturesque terrain grew steadily in the first decades of the nineteenth century, when artists discovered its frescoes and its people. The setting of this painting is the monastery of San Benedetto, which was constructed in the thirteenth century around the cave in which Benedict lived for three years about 500 A.D. The Sacro Speco, as the chapel installed in the living rock of the cave is known, is just behind the door through which the reigning pontiff, Gregory XVI, emerges into the richly decorated anteroom.

If Montessuy made it to Subiaco by October 22, 1836, he could have seen the oil study depicting the same interior by the Dane Martinus Rørbye, who on that day showed it to fellow artists there; otherwise he may have seen it on one of the following days in Rome (the finished painting, dated 1843, is in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; Rørbye’s diary is in the Statens Museum’s library). It appears that in taking a recent historical event as a pretext for this picturesque costume piece—Gregory worshiped at San Benedetto on April 30, 1834, fully two years before Montessuy left for Italy—the artist relied on eyewitness accounts. According to Montessuy’s hagiographer Aimé Vingtrinier, the subject of this painting is represented factually ("tout d’actualité"); it was painted mostly in Subiaco and finished in Rome, where it made the artist’s reputation before being sent to France for exhibition (see Vingtrinier 1883).

Gregory’s visit is described in detail in the monastery’s chronicle, Libro delle Memorie dal 1831 al 1850 (housed in the library of its sister institution, Santa Scolastica): ". . . After a brief rest in the Abbot’s Apartment, where he picked up the mozzetta [short cape] and the Pontifical stole, the H[oly] Father entered the Superior Church, whence, having venerated the Most Blessed Sacrament, he descended to the Sacred Cave to celebrate the Holy Mass, assisted by the R[eve]r[end] F[athers] Abbots Bini and Piacenti." It also describes the indelible impression the event made on area peasants: "While the H[oly] Father ascended the steep slopes, the Municipal Administrators of Jenne were expressing their jubilation with the continuous firing of mortars, and at the same time the village people, as well as others from nearby villages, men and women spread out around the tortuous turns of that road, paid him homage with their acclamations, giving him unequivocal demonstrations of their tender devotion, to which his Sanctity responded with the most endearing gestures of his benevolent nature, listening to the supplications of many, and permitting to all the kissing of the Foot." Some of his information may have been related to Montessuy by a certain Fra Vicenzo, who on April 21, 1837, told the painter Hippolyte Flandrin that he had posed for all the paintings François-Marius Granet had made at Subiaco many years before. ("Journal d’Hippolyte Flandrin, janvier 1833–juillet 1838: Séjour en Italie," in Marthe Flandrin and Madeline Froidevaux-Flandrin, Les Frères Flandrin, trois jeunes peintres aux XIXe siècle, Olonne sur Mer, 1984, p. 102 [April 21, 1837]; he must have posed for Granet’s 1818 painting of this interior, now in the Musée de Dreux).

This, Montessuy’s first masterpiece in a vein that he would pursue for the remainder of his career, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1844 and at the Société des Amis des Arts, Lyons, in 1844–45, where it was acquired by Lidie Pavy. It remained essentially unseen until it was acquired by the Museum in 2003. There is no more complete expression of the Lyonnais penchant for surface description than this picture. (Lyons was a center of textile and wallcovering production in the nineteenth century.)

[Asher Ethan Miller 2013. The following persons are gratefully acknowledged for their contributions to the cataloguing of this painting: Gérard Bruyère, Don Romano di Cosmo, Andy Julo, Kasper Monrad, Rosemarie Pinotti, Father Francisco Schulte, Daniel Ternois.]
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed (lower left): F. Montessuy. / Roma. 1843.
Société des Amis des Arts, Lyons (1845; bought from the artist when sold by lottery, for Fr 2,500, to Pavy); Mlle Lydie Pavy, Lyons and Combalat (1845–d.; bequeathed to Pierredon de Ferron); Henry de Pierredon de Ferron, France (until at least 1883); sale, Sotheby's, Monaco, November 29–30, 1986, no. 371, as "Visite du Pape Grégoire XVI au convent des révérends pères Bénédictins de Subiaco près de Rome," to Whitney; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (1986–2003; jointly with MMA, 2003–12)
Société des Amis des Arts de Lyon. "Exposition de la Société des Amis des Arts de Lyon," 1844–45, no. 311 (as "La Pape Grégoire XVI visitant l'église de St-Benoît, à Subiaco [États Romains]").

Paris. Salon. March 15–?, 1844, no. 1330 (as "Grégoire XVI visitant l'église de saint Benoît, à Subiaco [États-Romains]").

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850," January 22–April 21, 2013, unnumbered cat. (fig. 37).

J. D. "Exposition de la Société des Amis des Arts de Lyon, années 1844–45." Revue du Lyonnais 21 (January 1845), p. 73, states that, together with another interior scene by Montessuy on display (Musée de Grenoble, inv. MG 189), it is among the "oeuvres les plus complètes de l'Exposition," singling out specific passages for high praise, notably the woman in blue costume at right.

Raoul de Cazenove. Journal de Voyage, 1856–57. February 9, 1857 [quoted in Cazenove's letter to the editor of March 24, 1883, published in conjunction with Aimé Vingtrinier, "Montessuy, peintre lyonnais (3e et dernier article)," Lyon-Revue 4 (July 31, 1883), under "Lettres complémentaires," on pp. 28–29], recording a visit to the artist's studio at 137 Via dei Coronari, Rome, notes the painting's current owner as Mlle Lydie Pavy, Combalat.

Aimé Vingtrinier. "Montessuy, peintre lyonnais (2e article)." Lyon-Revue 4 (June 30, 1883), pp. 343–46, asserts that it was painted in Subiaco and finished in Rome, where it made the artist's reputation before being sent to Lyons [sic]; recounts that it was purchased from Exh. Lyons 1844 by the local Société des Amis des Arts and won in its lottery by Mlle Pavy; notes that is unlocated.

Raoul de Cazenove. [Letter to the Editor]. March 28, 1883 [published in conjunction with Aimé Vingtrinier, "Montessuy, peintre lyonnais (3e et dernier article)," Lyon-Revue 4 (July 31, 1883), under "Lettres complémentaires," on p. 29], cites the artist as stating that the Société des Amis de Arts paid him Fr 1,500 for it; describes the artist's visit to Lydie Pavy's home at Combalat to see the painting and his inclusion of a self-portrait in the composition; states that Pavy bequeathed it to the current owner, Pierredon de Ferron.

Elisabeth Hardouin Fugier in Les peintres de l'ame: Art lyonnais du XIXe siècle. Exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons. Lyons, 1981, p. 49, mentions that he painted it while living in Rome and that it achieved great success in the Lyons exhibition of 1844; states that with this painting he found his métier, the minute description of both past and present events in picturesque locations.

Marie-Anne Dupuy in Peintures et sculptures du XIXe siècle: La collection du musée de Grenoble. Ed. Catherine Chevillot. Paris, 1995, p. 224, notes that this painting preceded "View of the Interior of the Church at Subiaco" of 1844 (Musée de Grenoble, inv. MG 189), exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1845 as no. 1223.

Georges Vigne in collaboration with Laurence de L'Estoile. Les élèves d'Ingres. Exh. cat., Musée Ingres. Montauban, 1999, p. 148.

Dominique Dumas. Salons et expositions à Lyon 1786–1918: Catalogue des exposants et liste de leurs œuvres. Dijon, 2007, vol. 2, p. 922, notes that Mlle Lidie Pavy won the painting in the lottery associated with Exh. Lyons 1844–45.

Asher Ethan Miller. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 70 (Winter 2013), pp. 33–34, 47, fig. 37 (color).

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